Monday, April 02, 2007

"Radical Transparency" and Me

I have to admit, last week's little kerfluffle over blogging and transparency made me think far more than I thought it might. And not think in a "well, that's interesting" kind of way - it really created the kind of existential crisis that I typically only face every couple of years. And rather than shy away from the abyss, I stood my ground, stared back, and I feel as though the flames of Internet discussion have tempered me a bit.

It wasn't the notion of Radical Transparency (discussed in the issue of Wired in question, and on Chris Anderson's blog here and here) that caused the crisis - but what resulted from it was that I had to redefine what transparency, radical or otherwise, means to me and my job.

Two things caused me to really start thinking. The first was a comment on Frank Shaw's blog, reproduced here unedited:

Dude, somebody needs to wipe that candy-ass :) off your lyin' face!

The sad part of this business is that PR guys like you have sold your soul to the man, and are too smart by half.

You lie for a living. In the old days, that meant you would burn in hell for eternity. Now it just means that you can take home a fat paycheck.

You look in the mirror & what do you see? That :). Yuck.

The second was something Seth said to me in an IM discussion. I didn't save the transcript, so it's not exact, but he said something to the effect of the perception of many people is that PR is an inhibitor to communication. Referring of course to the "spin factor" - call it lies if you wish - people associate with the term "PR."

Taken together, I sat and stewed on this one for a while. Not long ago, I sat in on a meeting with Edelman's Corporate PR team - the guys you call when something really bad is about to happen, like a product recall or something. I asked them point-blank if they would ever turn down a potential client who was obviously guilty of something pretty terrible (the answer, incidentally, was yes.) But before that, they told me that it's important to keep in mind that everyone deserves equal representation - everyone deserves to have their side of the story told.

The answer really didn't sit well with me. I mulled that over on the way home last week, after reading about the Wired kerfluffle for most of the day. My belief in the American system notwithstanding, aren't there some douchebags who are better off just ignoring? Perhaps it was the fact that, just a few days prior, I saw the slimy defense lawyer on Battlestar Galactica use that exact same phrase to explain why he would defend Dr. Baltar, who was responsible for assisting the Cylons in their destruction of the Twelve Colonies - and then later responsible for collaborating with them during the occupation of New Caprica (I'm a geek, deal with it.) But one of the awesome things about Galactica is that it shows us Baltar's side of the story. He was an unwitting accomplice before the attacks, because a Cylon was using his hubris to gain access to information. He kept his involvement a secret for fear that the survivors would simply shove him out the nearest airlock. On New Caprica, it is certainly possible that he was collaborating because he thought it was the way to save more lives - the Cylons had superior firepower and any attempt to fight them on a mass scale would have resulted in a lot of deaths - possibly the deaths of all on the planet. It's a utilitarian argument, but a plausible one.

But seriously, is that the best defense I have - that I'm like the guy defending Gaius Frackin' Baltar (I warned you I was a geek) because "everyone deserves a chance to tell their side of the story?" Well sure, on one hand, that is true. It's the foundation of the American justice system for fuck's sake. But on the other hand, people tend to form opinions that are very hard to change. When you read something that presents a point of view from only one angle, you're more likely to agree, especially if you don't have a previous opinion about the subject matter. And if you've already formed an opinion that's similar to that being expressed in the story (X is evil, or Y is good) then you're even more likely to agree. I simplify, of course, but it's basic human psychology.

But it's not the best defense I have. What Seth said stuck with me, and I thought about it more in the context of what I used to do at WizKids: I was the guy who was responsible for entering information into the HeroClix figure gallery. I was the guy who put out press releases (and wrote them.) My job was to let the community know what was coming in future HeroClix releases, because it got them excited. Did I have to break bad news? Sure. But I did it honestly, in a straightforward manner, and I'd like to think they appreciated me for that.

So the dissonance here comes from what I do and the perception of what I do: I don't inhibit information flow. If anything, I facilitate it. And I use that term in its true definition, not the "new business" definition - I'm not going to petition to change my job title to "Information Facilitator" anytime soon.


As any HeroClix players reading this site can attest, we didn't simply dump every bit of information out into the community. We announced expansions at a certain time so it wouldn't deflect interest from current releases. We trickled information about set contents to keep people interested. We knew what people wanted to know most, and we knew we could drive traffic if we held back a couple of days on posting that information, so we would (Superman anyone?)

More importantly, there were things that were never discussed in public. We never released the HeroClix point formula, and to this day no one has accurately cracked it. This occurred for two reasons: if we released it, people could simply create their own dials (or try to "correct" our dials), and second, it was WizKids' intellectual property and probably worth quite a bit of money to the right people. Games are a competitive business. Nuff said.

Nor did we discuss other internal goings-on: meetings where we decided what conventions we would attend, how to reorganize things to meet our budgets, and which people in the company argued for various sides to those questions. Why? The public simply doesn't need to know that stuff. There is no benefit whatsoever to the public at large seeing that information.

On a more personal note: look around the blog you're reading. You can make some fairly accurate assumptions about me here based on information I have chosen to share. I like comic books, and specifically Groo. You can see things I've taken pictures of. You can see my friends and interests by reading who I link to. You can see what music I've listened to most recently on my laptop. You can tell when I'm playing my Xbox 360, and when - exactly - I've reached certain points in certain games. You can tell I have cats, I'm married, and get a vague idea of where I live.

However, you will never see other kinds of information here. You won't know before or while I'm taking a vacation - only after. I don't want you to know why my house is empty. You won't know my exact address. You'll never learn my phone number, because I value my privacy (just ask some of my former WizKids pals, who were woken one morning by a gamer calling their house to ask them rules questions for the MechWarrior game.) You won't know when my wife and I fight. You won't know if I'm looking for a new job, because people from my office read this blog (it's OK guys, I'm not going anywhere.)

Why? Because that information isn't relevant to the discussion occurring here. Sure, some of it shapes who I am - from my experiences in the long run to my current mood - and there are people who share all that information online. Bully for them. But for you, the reader, it's simply not relevant.

And that's basically where I arrived. Chris Anderson, as much as I agree with his Long Tail theory, needs to acknowledge that even "radical transparency" has its limits. There are nods to this in the print issue of Wired - he notes that Coca-Cola probably shouldn't publish its secret formula online - but there are simply things that are not relevant to a conversation. In other words, there can be - can be - such a thing as "too much information."

Not that Anderson's underlying idea about radical transparency is necessarily a bad one. There is something to be said for a CEO blogging about his doubts about business decisions - traditional thinking says it will spook the investors, lower public confidence, and damage morale. And those things may be true. But it also creates a rapport with the public in ways that no amount of traditional PR or advertising ever could, ever. But I'll bet that the same CEO does not blog about specific meetings, publish every memo or email he writes, or mentions when he waits a couple of extra seconds on the elevator to watch a shapely intern walk by. Because that information simply isn't relevant.

One response might be "well, selectively sharing information isn't really being transparent at all, is it?" And the simple answer is: I don't know. Transparency, radical or otherwise, isn't defined and it certainly isn't quantified. It's certainly not extreme, as many of the community members who commented on Frank Shaw's blog viewed it (and, I suspect, many in the community would view it - tell us everything, damn it!) And there is a lot of information out there now. The Internet is, basically, a neural network that represents the sum total of all human knowledge. If you want to find information, you can do it. MSNBC can run up to five scrolls of stock reports and news tickers at once. Football games are full of statistics, cameras and microphones on the field are now the norm. As Lewis Black said, "the only place left to go is to put a camera up the linebacker's ass to see what he had for dinner last night."

A cynic might say it's disingenuous to talk about transparency in the same space as talking about choosing which information to share and not to share. Is that any more disingenuous than selling an issue of Wired about being "transparent" by putting an extremely airbrushed model on the cover? Perhaps. Perhaps I'm simply rationalizing this in my head, and I'm wrong. But somehow I don't think so.

After all, ten years ago I could not have conceived of working a job where I wouldn't have gotten fired for posting what I just wrote - as many of my readers perhaps can imagine as well. And I sit here ten years later, encouraged to think about - and blog about - these kind of things by my supervisors.

Information facilitation. It's what we do.


Roger Whitson said...

don't you think it is a bit of an irony that you are writing about the possibility of "too much information" in a blog that is so FRACKIN long?!?

Jason said...